Council Approves Canadian Drug Bill

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The Montgomery County Council approved a bill yesterday requiring officials to give county employees the option to purchase lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada -- or anyplace else they can find a good deal.

The bill was approved despite continued warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the county was on the verge of violating federal law and risked being sued.

The proposal, which affects 12,500 county employees and retirees, requires County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to participate in a program established by the council last year.

"We will be a leader on the issue on securing safe, low-cost prescription drugs on the behalf of our citizens," said County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), the lead sponsor of the legislation.

Before the council vote, the FDA dispatched a top official to reiterate the agency's position that drugs from foreign sources are neither safe nor legal.

Thomas J. McGinnis, the FDA's director of pharmacy affairs, said the council was putting employees and taxpayers at risk.

"If someone gets hurt, the county may very well be liable," McGinnis said. "It could bankrupt the Montgomery County government."

But the council rushed ahead and approved the bill 6 to 2, holding a hearing and a final vote on the same day. The unusual move signaled council members' frustration that their earlier efforts to establish a Canadian drug program were hampered by Duncan and other county officials.

In September, the council approved a resolution calling for a program to allow 85,000 employees, retirees and dependents who receive taxpayer-funded health care to obtain Canadian drugs.

The council contracted with Canusa, a privately held health benefits company based in Windsor, Ontario, to obtain and distribute the drugs.

But the program has struggled to get off the ground, in large part because of the reluctance of county officials to blatantly snub the FDA, which is based in Rockville.

Duncan decided he would first seek a waiver from the FDA allowing the county to import Canadian drugs. The agency has never issued any such waiver. The stance opened him up to charges that he was trying to dodge the issue.

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